Tag Archives: massive attack

Fifty words for breathtaking

There’s a wonderful moment on “Lake Tahoe” (see above), from Kate Bush‘s 2011 album 50 Words For Snow, when she lifts her fingers from the piano for a moment, sighs exquisitely, then carries on with the plaintive chords that flesh out the song. Forget the tumbling, rumbling timpani, the fragments of lilting flute, the occasional orchestral draws—that’s the moment you realise this album was constructed in a real studio, in real time, with real and unmistakeable instruments.

Through the 1980s, Bush pioneered the use of the Fairlight CMI, an early digital sampling synthesizer which fleshed out the experimental compositions on albums like 1985’s Hounds Of Love. For some artists, the studio becomes their instrument; for Bush, it was the Fairlight. But at the same time, she never let go of her most powerful two tools: her piano, and her voice. Those were the tools that underpinned “The Ninth Wave”, the powerful and career-defining suite that forms the second side of Hounds Of Love.

On her ‘comeback’ album, Aerial, released in 2005 after a twelve-year hiatus, Bush hid her piano pretty well, even as she penned songs that were alternately wittier or more mature than before. That might have been the album’s undoing: the music behind these lengthy ruminations was sophisticated, but drifted towards the forgettable. Tastefully dry crunches of electric guitar; smoothed-out drums; a pace that never rises beyond the incidental. The industry forgave her; she had evolved into a sacred cow.

If Aerial stripped back the artifice of her supposed mythology to reveal the joy she took from mundanity (raising her son Bertie, doing the laundry, worshipping Elvis in the supermarket aisle), then 50 Words For Snow is the album which strips back musically. Never has Bush sounded so naked. That’s not to say the music isn’t complex, however. The way the piano weaves and wends its way around the two voices—those of Kate and Bertie)—in the opener “Snowflake” is rich in subtext. Between the cracks seep organic wafts of electronic resonance; the elder Bush sets the scene; the younger takes on the role of the titular snowflake, on its patient and meandering descent to earth. The next two tracks complete a trio of piano-led numbers thirty-five minutes in length; at its pinnacle is “Misty”, an adult-oriented retelling of Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman. The narrator falls for a snowman; she invites him back in; he melts at her touch. The morning after, soaking sheets are the only trace of their tryst. It’s a haunting tale, and it’s told in such a way that any obvious innuendo is avoided.

Hounds Of Love had a second side consisting of a piano-centred suite; 50 Words For Snow front-loads its wintry equivalent. Its back half is musically more varied: “Wild Man” takes an Irish folk jig on an expedition in the Himalayas, on the hunt for the Yeti, while “Snowed In At Wheeler Street”, a duet with Elton John (!), unfolds over eerily filtered synthesizer pulses. The title track, meanwhile, is lyrically witty but sonically evokes the 1990s paranoia of Massive Attack, with brushed drumming and penetrating, lurking bass-work. The closer, “Among Angels”, is a barely-there performance for piano and ethereal strings. As the song peters out delicately, Bush sings, “There’s someone who’s loved you forever but you don’t know it / You might feel it and just now show it”, beautifully summarising the translucent, watchful and protecting gaze heavenly bodies seem to hold over this album.

It would be tempting to think of 50 Words For Snow as a seasonal gimmick—she has form, after all, having released a Christmas single in 1980, “December Will Be Magic Again“—but to do so having actually listened to this work would be criminal. The timing might have been fitting, but the songs themselves, and the way they fit together into an uneasy, creeping mood, is timeless. If this is the start of an Indian summer for Bush, I don’t care that it started in the depths of winter.


50 Words For Snow by Kate Bush was released in November 2011, on Fish People.

Massive Attack – Heligoland

Massive Attack used to excel at taking really disparate, exciting sounds and weaving them into a tapestry of overwhelming despair, over which they spun woozy vocal melodies sung either by themselves (Daddy G, 3D) or by intriguingly chosen guest vocalists. On their finest work to date, Mezzanine, while never totally abandoning their early interest in reggae and soul, the (then) trio departed unexpectedly from laid-back, dinner party tempos, favouring an almost punishingly unhappy mood and tone. Electrical noise, squelchy bass synth and distant, distorted synths were the order of the day, along with that heavy metal guitar that cuts through “Angel”. Importantly, these crazily challenging sonics were forged onto equally sophisticated and dependable song structures – in particular, the climactic “Group Four” segued through several movements, never losing sight of its drive and mystery. Mezzanine was a knockout masterpiece; one of my undoubted albums of the decade.

Seven years on from their last effort (and it represented quite an effort to get through 100th Window), Massive Attack return as a duo, with Heligoland. Say it differently and you get “hell ego land”, possibly. Equally tenuous, sad to say, is the premise that the band have lost none of their touch, because this album is undoubtedly a disappointment. In place of the group’s formerly deft touch with textures and sonic themes, here, they seem to content to drop just one exciting sound per track, drag them out for longer than is necessary, and expect the rest to follow. It doesn’t – at its worst, Heligoland is criminally repetitive, with interesting ideas that go nowhere. “Psyche” sounds like a half-baked sketch of an instrumental backing, albeit with a notably pretty vocal performance from Martina Topley-Bird; not even a brief orchestral swell can save “Flat Of The Blade” from its interminable, ugly and atonal electronic whirrings.

On the album’s more successful tracks, Del Naja and Marshall venture further with their collection of synth presets and little chunks of melody, instead of riding along contentedly on repetitive grooves. “Girl I Love You”, for instance, is unafraid to suddenly pick up in pace, take on a gloriously filtered brass arrangement, or meld into a dissonant cloud of noise. Another highlight is “Paradise Circus”, which ebbs in on intricate bells, vibes and the softest of beats, before shifting direction, twice, replacing this arrangement with dubby bass, and then a surprisingly stirring orchestra. True, little of this progression includes a return to Daddy G-provided “blackness”, but with such thin pickings, we can hardly complain. You’re just left wishing the rest of the album was similarly risk-taking.

The other big problem affecting much of Heligoland lies in its vocals. In their earlier career, Massive Attack made careful and assiduous choices when inviting in guest singers. Shara Nelson on “Unfinished Sympathy” was an inspired move, as was the sprinkling on Liz Fraser on Mezzanine. On Heligoland, by contrast, the ageing big guns are slathered all over. You have to wait till track three to hear 3D and Daddy G for the first time; in total, they make just three vocal contributions to the whole record. That would be just about acceptable, if their replacements’ performances were particularly meaningful.

All too often, however, the individuals roped in sound either past-their-prime (does anyone really think about Hope Sandoval anymore? or Topley-Bird, for that matter?) or deeply uncaring – witness Elbow’s Guy Garvey sounding extremely disinterested on “Flat Of The Blade”. I can excuse Daddy G from being absent from 100th Window – he was on paternity leave at the time – but here, even though he has returned to the fold, his solitary vocal mark rests at a few dope-heavy lines on “Splitting The Atom”, unfortunately chained to a funhouse organ chord progression that is spun out over five minutes. Horace Andy‘s contributions are more stirring, but, in the absence of a serviceable tune, they frequently crumble into insignificance.

On the closing track, “Atlas Air”, you can tell Massive Attack are aiming for the kind of multi-section epic that was once christened “Group Four”. That they almost achieve such heights, but fall short, is an undesired shame. We all knew Massive Attack were outrageously talented producers: what we wanted was clear evidence that they were also gifted songwriters (Lord knows their outside production work has been despairingly infrequent). On Heligoland, their craft bears the undeniable mark of rustiness and laziness, to the extent that many tracks that seem superficially lovely (well of course they sound lush, given the knob-twiddling fingers involved) end up being enhanced considerably when played alongside their video treatments. What’s new on Heligoland? An unoriginal dependence on orchestral arrangements, and a surprising and crushingly saddening lack of invention and songwriting sparkle.

Pick ‘n’ mix: Girl I Love You, Paradise Circus, Saturday Comes Slow.

White goddess, red goddess, black temptress of the sea

In Dan Weiss’s review of Interpol frontman Paul Bank’s forthcoming solo single, “The Fun That We Have”, the writer suggests that while “All the guys fall for the languid Turn On The Bright Lights … the girls I know tend to prefer the blockier Antics.” I may be the exception to the rule, in that I feel there’s a compelling case for suggesting that Antics is the superior album; indeed, that it may be one of those albums that I irrationally associate with ‘perfection’. Other such albums have included, over the years, Tortoise’s TNT, Amon Tobin’s Supermodified, and Massive Attack’s Mezzanine. To this list, I believe we can add Antics, because it succeeds in continuing the importance of mood and atmosphere that Interpol established on their debut, while attaching greater importance on the quality of the songwriting.

Turn On The Bright Lights is an alarmingly accomplished debut: from the very off, its echoey, jangling guitar signal a kind of reflective anxiety and unease that never lets up. Through the elegiac swooning of NYC and the slightly malevolent swagger of PDA, the intricate interplay of guitars provides the ideal counterpoint to the locked-in tautness of the rhythm section. The emotional centre of the album, Hands Away, with its beautiful swells of orchestral slush, is book-ended by two tightly-wound pop songs in Say Hello To Angels and Obstacle 2. The second half of the album finds the band a little in the wilderness, meandering through Stella… and Roland seemingly on autopilot, relying on atmospherics to succeed any boredom. Finally, in the closing brace of The New and Leif Erikson, the band secure their foothold once more with a pair of gorgeous, engaging epics that take unexpected turns and dives. The album is a delicious journey, and I’ve probably done little so far to dispel this suggestion. But, crucially, for me, it provides too few highlights. Taken as a whole, it’s an extremely successful portrait of a city, a culture, a social class. Taken apart, it only really contains one standout track – The New – and the overriding impression of a band reaching out far beyond their limits (which is undoubtedly a good thing) is more than anything else a product of the album’s interstitial outros. Collectively, it’s epic. Singularly, it’s just really good.

Antics, by contrast, announces itself in a considerably more upbeat fashion, with the organ-led swell of Next Exit, and proceeds, over the course of 42 minutes, to never put a foot wrong on the individual level of the song, and indeed the overall texture of the album. It’s both an album of singles, and a single body of an album. The structure and pacing of Turn On The Bright Lights was a loose-limbed thing; Antics follows a much more interesting pattern: the first side consists mainly of snappy, bright pop songs, broken only by the wandering beauty of Take You On A Cruise; the second side, beginning with Not Even Jail, is far more adventurous, with a series of far-reaching performances brought momentarily back to earth by the brief C’mere. As on its predecessor, Antics closes with a stunning couple, with the maximal arrangement of Length Of Love leading beautifully into A Time To Be So Small, which appears to depict a father-and-son argument taking place in a boat, from the point of view of a sea urchin, watching the dispute from the ocean beneath said boat. This is fascinating, far-out stuff, and it’s extraordinary how we never feel a sense of ridicule at being stretched so much by what superficially appears to be a four-piece straight-up post-punk revival.

The reason I think Antics is the better album, then, is because when it sticks to the pop formula, it gets better returns than before, and, when the band take off their dancing shoes and put on their thinking caps, the album’s exploratory epics put just as much experimentation and texture into each song as Turn On The Bright Lights achieved on the whole album. That’s not a criticism of Turn On The Bright Lights, more a satisfying reflection on just how accomplished Antics is. Of particular importance are Take You On A Cruise and Public Pervert. On the former, mournful, bleating pails of guitar and feedback lead masterfully into a an almost mantra-like passage of whispered chanting; on the latter, a simple arpeggiated bassline combines with lilting, tremolo guitar work to set up a raging beast of a song that captures perfectly the feeling of the lyrical refrain “So swoon baby, starry night…” It’s a rare moment of emotional unity on an album otherwise populated by unsettling and macabre imagery, as in the closer’s chorus of “cadaverous mobs”.

Antics is very much the kind of album that, when it recedes into silence at the end, one wants nothing more than to conjure it into being again. It manages to assert a continuous instrumental virtuosity that never ceases to surprise, which, combined with the best collection of lyrics Paul Banks has committed to tape, breaks surprising ground given the band’s sparse set-up. More so than its predecessor, it succeeds not only in the big picture, but also in the minutiæ, and for this, it remains one of the most pristinely unhindered albums I own. I wouldn’t change a single thing.

Private revision rave

I seem to be starting every post nowadays with “Just a quick update to say…” so here comes another one.

My hands are somewhat tied, musically, at present, owing to an overload/guilt trip about actually getting down to some revision. Predictably, I’ve spent the entire year slavishly scribbling down notes without really understanding what was going on. Consequently, I should now have my face firmly held to the grindstone.

While I revise, I do however like to listen to music. Usually I favour stuff with a strong rhythmic element – LCD Soundsystem, Hercules & Love Affair, Prinzhorn Dance School, Portishead, Massive Attack – but I also find myself working more productively with instrumental post rock, which has the effect of letting me “leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime.” Albums like Explosions In The Sky’s Those Who Tell The Truth Will Die, Those Who Tell The Truth Will Live Forever and Tortoise’s landmark TNT are ideal for this purpose, as are most of M83’s albums.

When I’m not revising, I’ve also been exploring the depths of Spotify, and have had the following albums of frequent rotation:

The Decemberists – The Hazards Of Love

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!

Konono No. 1 – Congotronics

Amadou & Mariam – Welcome To Mali

Antibalas – Talkatif

John Rutter – Gloria

Various – Nigeria 70: Lagos Jump

Antony & The Johnsons – The Crying Light

Beck – Sea Change

Doves – Kingdom Of Rust

Robert Wyatt – Comicopera

Hockey Night – Keep Guessin’

All of which I can heartily endorse. Certainly if you’re in the UK, you’ve no excuse not to get swallowed up by Spotify, because anyone can sign up.

Enjoy!